Hundreds lined up outside of Concordia University’s Henry F. Hall Building Thursday night to see Rev. Al Sharpton speak on the U.S. presidential election cycle, as well as issues that touched closer to home – like police brutality, animal rights, and reasonable accommodation.
The audience greeted Sharpton, an American civil rights activist and former Democratic Party presidential candidate, with a standing ovation.
“I’m not always treated as kindly in introductions in the States,” he said.
Although Sharpton has not officially endorsed any candidate for president, he called the career of Barack Obama an “ascension” that was “nothing short of astounding.”
He also criticized the Clinton campaign, arguing that a memo it released before last Tuesday’s primaries – which claimed Obama aides met with members of Canada’s Conservative Party to discuss NAFTA – was “suspicious.”
The memo said that an adviser of Obama had met with Canadian officials to say that he would not renegotiate the free trade agreement, which contradicted statements the Illinois Senator had made during his campaign that were strongly anti-NAFTA. After publicizing the memo, Clinton won Ohio, where a large, working-class population blames NAFTA for job losses.
The Conservatives have proposed to investigate the matter themselves, but Sharpton called for an independent investigation.
“Here’s a little advice from south of the border: usually, when people investigate themselves, they exonerate themselves,” he said.
Sharpton said the Clinton campaign was attempting to change the rules of the primary system by trying to seat Michigan and Florida’s delegates prior to February 5. The Democratic National Committee (DNC) stripped both states of their delegates.
He also ridiculed the superdelegate system, which allows Democratic Party leaders to determine the outcome of the primaries even if more people vote for one candidate. He compared it to the 2000 Supreme Court decision that ended the Florida recount, effectively ensuring George W. Bush’s presidency.
Finishing with U.S. politics, Sharpton changed focus to schools and reasonable accommodation. He compared the creation of black-focused schools in the U.S. to the institution of affirmative action, and said that both remedy historical inequalities. The creation of black schools was approved in Toronto earlier this year.
But he saved some of his harshest words for the reasonable accommodation debate, ridiculing the arguments of those who advocate a shift towards a policy of assimilation.
“We have no problems in Canada. We get along with everybody – but don’t wear that turban,” he parodied. “Don’t speak your language. Don’t practice your religion…. If I have to deny myself, it is giving you a supremacist position.”
Despite his comments on these Canadian issues, the majority of audience questions addressed the upcoming U.S. presidential election, with a few divergent questions.
Asked whether America is prepared to accept a black president, Sharpton said, “I don’t think America was prepared for black people in the front of the bus.”
When a representative of the Concordia Animal Rights Association asked about Sharpton’s involvement with activists opposing KFC’s treatment of animals, Sharpton said that he became involved after learning about KFC’s practices, even though animal rights has not traditionally been one his issues.
“I’m trying to grow into that,” Sharpton said.
Another student asked why Malcolm X was not as celebrated as Martin Luther King Jr., his contemporary in the civil rights movement.
“Malcolm X should be,” Sharpton replied. “They speak to different parts of my soul.”
The Concordia Student Union hosted Sharpton Wednesday as part of their “Great Canadian Speaker Series,” even though Sharpton is not Canadian. Prior speakers have included environmentalist David Suzuki, Liberal leader Stéphane Dion, and former U.S. Vice-President Al Gore, and should include NDP leader Jack Layton by April.